When I caught R.E.M. rehearsing material from this album at last year's Dublin shows, the new songs sounded fresh and intriguing. I don't know what's happened in the interim, but Accelerate isn't anything like as exciting as anticipated. Its muscular riffing recalls the mainstream-rock moves of Lifes Rich Pageant and Document but, crucially, without the winning melodies and the sense of ambitious necessity.
"Living Well's the Best Revenge" opens the album with a surging swagger, while Michael Stipe offers what is, by his standards, a charmless and clichéd lyric about having it large: "History will set me free/ The future's ours, so get on in..." The withering sarcasm of "Mansized Wreath" seems churlish, a dissatisfying substitute for the less literal lyrical conceits of earlier albums.
There's a Ziggy Stardust flavour to the single "Supernatural Superserious", in both the riff and the bitter sense of loss behind lines like "You realise your fantasies/ Are dressed up in travesties"; but it lacks the anthemic, uplifting quality of much of Bowie's and R.E.M.'s best work. "Hollow Man" is better, a heart-searching piano-based number about someone struggling to define themselves. "I've been lost inside my head, echoes follow me," sings Stipe, repeatedly resolving into a chorus of "Believe in me, believe in nothing": it's as if, after decades as rock's most thoughtful conscience, he's suffering doubts.
Elsewhere, brooding organ chords cast a lowering sky over the brief rumination on the state of Texas, "Houston", and over the title track itself, a fraught piece that seems to extend further the Hollow Man's desperate desire to escape his situation – "Where is the ripcord, the trapdoor, the key?" – and find completeness in a new direction. In case anyone believes this escape might involve Stipe's departure from the rock'n'roll circus, he's at pains to point out, in the surly rocker "Horse to Water" and the concluding "I'm Gonna DJ", that he's not to be second-guessed in this manner. "Hey, steady steady, I don't wanna go until I'm good and ready," he proclaims, explaining his intention to "deejay at the end of the world".
Sadly, Accelerate does not bode well for R.E.M.'s future, despite the familiar bullish talk of being "back on form". Apart from the 12-string guitars in "Until the Day Is Done", there's scant evidence of the group's once sublime folk-rock stylings. The album is over-heavy with stodge and weighty riffs, and short on subtlety. It sounds as if, in seeking to revitalise their muse, the group have confused sheer power with progress.
Pick of the album: 'Hollow Man', 'Until the Day is Done', 'I'm Gonna DJ'